Once upon a time I wrote computer programs.
Did you know, a good program should always be designed to be read by human beings as well as machines? Why, you might ask, and the answer is: so that when you, the programmer, have left the company, the human being who replaces you might know what you thought you were doing.
Good programs are also designed to be read by machines, of course – think two-year-olds. The instructions are written in code – think “Yes” and “No.” And instruction lists are broken into short and clean subroutines – like chapters in a book.
Finally, good programs are supposed to be impossible to misread, which brings me to my next job – breaking computer programs. Technically I was a Quality Assurance engineer at the time. I ensured the quality of programs (or at least tried to) by searching for every possible case the programmer might have missed, then breaking things in every way my limited brain could imagine – failing to test for Divide by Zero was, of course, a classic example (and became the title of my first novel). Since I was married to one of the programmers, we’d often joke – “No dinner tonight unless you fix this bug!”
But now I write and edit books.
There are similarities. Mostly I don’t write for two-year-olds (human or mechanical) anymore; but I still hope to write clearly enough so when I, the author, have left the page the human replacement, or reader, can easily work out what I was saying. I still use code, or symbols, to evoke feelings and memory. I still try to simplify – never use two words where one will do? And I still break my tales into chapters and scenes. Then I edit.
I’ve learned that editing uses those same “break things” muscles as being a QA engineer, looking for ways a reader might misunderstand, misread, or wrongly imagine the interpretation of words. “Time flies like an arrow,” is a classic example here – was time flying, or was little Freddy following the flight of bugs? The editor irons out bugs from the program, or book (sounds rather messy) and then…
But editing for someone else has another aspect too – one that came into play for me, somewhere between writing and breaking programs. I spent quite a number of years at home with small children then, in preschool with small children, in elementary school, in chess club, and more. And during those years I learned to be a forger of children’s art.
You see, these were the days before scanners and Photoshop, and we wanted all the kids’ self-portraits on a tea-towel to be sold in a fundraiser. But how would we get the artwork from scraps of torn paper onto one two-foot by three-foot paper template? The answer is, yours truly took the pictures home; studied the way the lines were drawn – where did the pencil hit the page… did this kid use smooth curves or sharp angles, press hard, press lightly, make holes in the paper… and did the eyes fit in the face? Then I copied the pictures, one by one, redrawing and resizing into equal spaces on the template. Neither moms nor kids could see the difference – except in size – and that was the idea.
That’s the idea with editing for someone else as well – no one should see the difference between the editor’s suggestions and the author’s original ideas. And perhaps it’s the idea with writing too – no one should see the difference between the author’s words and the character’s thoughts. But forgery might pay better.
Sheila Deeth is the author of Infinite Sum, soon to be released by Indigo Sea Press. And Sylvia Steepleton, the protagonist of Infinite Sum, was a character in Divide by Zero who demanded to tell her own story. Read Divide by Zero, meet Sylvia, and ask why she let it happen. Then find the answers, as told by Sylvia and written down by Sheila, in Infinite Sum.